“CCM” and its (de)Merits

Bunnie Diehl has been having an interesting effect on many people over at her site with her discussions of popular “Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM). This is the kind of thing that never fails to incite heated bouts of disagreement among Christians (which I do not see as always unhealthy). It seems to me that the ultimate question is about the purpose of CCM. (I should say first that I think it is rather strange that CCM is the only “genre” of music that is defined not by its musical style but by its purpose or motivation.)
What is the purpose of CCM? Well, from its very beginnings it was designed as a sort of alternative to the “worldly” music of the ’60s and ’70s. It was also used to attract non-Christians who liked the “devil’s music.” To me, this has created cross-purposes: first, CCM is an alternative to whatever is popular in the mainstream culture. This is a problem because in order to present an alternative, one must know what is popular; however, by the time one has figured out enough of what is popular and attempted to imitate it, the popular music world has moved on. This makes CCM about two or three years behind the times. Felicitous inconsistencies happen, of course. P.O.D is a band that was doing “rap-core” long before anyone heard of Papa Roach, etc. They paid their dues and made it in the mainstream industry by building their fan base and playing tons of shows. And, for the most part, they’ve kept their integrity and continue to preach an explicitly Christian message in many of their songs. But for every P.O.D. there are twenty bands copying secular styles because they see that it sells. This is the reason for the popularity of those “If you like “Bad Secular Band A,” try “Good Christian Band B” posters one finds in Christian book stores. That’s fine to an extent, but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to musical originality and creativity.

When I was in high school and college, I went to a music festival in Washington State, which consisted entirely of Christian bands. At this festival, Matt Wignall of Havalina Rail Co. (now just “Havalina,” I believe) made a comment that has always been in my mind in these sorts of discussions. Essentially, he said that Christians should never copy what is popular in the mainstream. If Christians really wanted to follow a God who is Creator, they would be the ones whom everyone else followed. They would be the ones creating original, artistic and creative music. They would be the ones ahead of the trends (which is not always good for business, unfortunately). So the first purpose of CCM, and one with which I whole-heartedly disagree, is to create an alternative universe of copies of secular music, and usually bad ones at that. This has not created a parallel world of good music for and by Christians; on the contrary, it has created an ever-narrowing ghetto of, usually, bad art.
The second purpose, ostensibly, of CCM, is to evangelize. In order to do this, common wisdom goes, one must water down the “message” enough so that non-Christians (who would usually not be interested in anything speaking positively and openly of Jesus Christ) would pick it up. There are a number of problems with this approach. For one, it is a bait-and-switch. It says, “Hey! Check out this band, they’re really good!” What is waiting in the wings of those words is: “Yeah, then maybe you’ll not notice it’s a Christian band until you’re hooked, and the message (whatever it is) will somehow be absorbed by subconscious osmosis.” Since when has this ever been the Gospel approach? What’s a better way? Stop copying and start making good, creative music. If the message is offensive (and the blood-marred cross usually is) people may still pick up the album simply because it is good.
On Bunnie’s blog, someone raised the issue of poetry in relation to this. It’s a good point because poetry can often be hard to pin down as to its exact message. However, very little of CCM can be called poetry without a stifled laugh. Bob Dylan is poetry. Vigilantes of Love is poetry. Over the Rhine is poetry. Plus One is not poetry.
The second problem is the very nature of a message watered-down enough to infiltrate the ears of the enemy. Is this song about God or about my boyfriend? Much of the time it is literally impossible to tell. Is this song about my eternal salvation or is it about living the good life? Don’t really know.
Now, does that mean that good music made by Christians is never open to interpretation? Of course not. But what it probably does mean is that I, as a Christian, will definitely find more meaning in a song made by a Christian than a non-Christian will, even if they clearly recognize a definitive Christian worldview in the song. But the fact that Christians can make good art without either bashing them in the head with “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” (some people need some bashing, don’t get me wrong) or watering down the lyrics so that they are simply sugar and niceties is often enough an entry point into a deeper discussion. Platitudes do not open the doors to discussion about the deeper mysteries of this life, let alone about the eternal mysteries of the Triune God and His salvific work.
These two purposes, of an alternative to “bad music,” as well as an evangelistic tool, create an ambiguity in CCM that is hard to undo. If you want an alternative, it is probably going to be using the instruments of “secular music” (not that I think there is a such thing as “sacred” and “secular” instruments) to make music that is “safe” and “wholesome” for Christians. If you want an evangelistic tool, it usually means either bad theology or such unclear messages that the song could have been written by a 13 year-old in her “artistic” stage. Both usually end in the realm of bad art. One example is the current fad of “worship music.” Why in the world would anyone need 18 cds with “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” on them? These cds are usually composed of some popular artist doing “their take” on the the same eight songs that are on every other worship cd. Tell me that’s not only for the money. Fernando Ortega is able to create good contemporary worship that’s not all about “me”; why is everyone else so lazy?
Another example, not limited to Christian music (I hate that term; music can no more be “Christian” that carpentry or law or medicine! Only people can be Christians. Music, carpentry, law and medicine can be done by Christians, but they are not, in and of themselves, Christian. In fact [paraphrasing a quote attributed to Luther], I would rather have a good heathen physician than a lousy Christian one.): the proliferation of “best-of” albums after the artist has put out one or two albums! That’s just silly. You would think, in a sane world, that one would have to earn the right to put out a greatest hits album. In fact, you would think that one would have to have some hits. Not so. You only have to need some filler until your next album (if you ever have a next album).
Anyway, all of this (much too long) rant is to say that I think the whole idea of CCM is a bad one–unless of course you want to feel good about yourself because you chose the “good” alternative to all that bad “worldly” music. Personally, I would rather have some good art that challenges me and makes me think, even if made by a non-Christian, than garbage made by a Christian. I’m not sure that Christian music affirmative action should ever be supported.
One of the best takes on the whole “Christian” marketing ghetto I have ever seen is All Star United’s song “Smash Hit.” Two of the best stanzas:

“Join his name to any cause
Drop his name to get applause
They never get enough
Nothing here to be ashamed of

Those ever loyal fans
They wanna get their hands
On His newest merchandising
Ignoring overpricing” [emphasis added].

Bring on the flamers (if they read this far)!



21 thoughts on ““CCM” and its (de)Merits

  1. It must be me… but… I never thought of all of CCM as an alternative to secular music. In my mind, it was more taking what was there and making something good with it. And if ya got a really good band or singer, they’d make something better than what was avaliable. (Yes, this did happen. Though, for me, I found out through word-of-mouth, not the radio.)

    Also, not all Christian music was/is for evengalizing. Many bands sing to encourage their fellow brother and sisters in Christ. In these bands, they assume the people listening know who and what they’re talking about (faith wise).

    Maybe I’m crazy, but after listening to the stuff for 20 yrs (my parents liked the stuff) I was able to find a lot of good bands and singers. I guess they just didn’t make it on the radio though….

  2. D2M,
    My point is that for some people (and true to its origins in the Jesus Movement) it is an alternative to what is out there “in the world.” Also, I do not think it is all for evangelizing.
    There are certainly a lot of good bands and artists. I’ve listened to “Christian music” ever since my aunt started giving my brothers and me $15 dollars which we could spend only at a Christian bookstore. The problem is that the good artists who are doing good work seem so few and far between.


  3. Maybe the difference between me and you and Bunnie is that I’m more open about what I listen to. I’ll listen to just about anything as long as the message is good.

    But mostly what upsets me is that people keep beating this “dead horse” subject. Can’t people just let it go? It doesn’t edify, teach, or draw people closer to God by harping about how horrible they think CCM is. It seems like an argument for the sack of arguing (ESPECIALLY in the case of Bunnie).

  4. I dunno, D2M. I think there are a lot of Christians out there (like the youth minister at my church and many of the youth) who are pretty convinced that you are sinning if you listen to anything that isn’t explicitly Christian. In addition to being wrong, they have made the gospel artificially inaccessible to the lost. “If you want to be a Christian, you have to listen to this particular kind of music.”

    I think you should be careful in dealing out pronouncments about what does or doesn’t edify. Maybe it isn’t helpful to you, but these types of arguments might cause some Christian to realize that he has been living in the “Christian ghetto,” which I think is a real impediment to evangelism.

  5. I say let the free markets decide the fate of CCM. If the artist is good, may the album sell well. If the artist stinks, bye-bye. I don’t understand the draw to most CCM, but I don’t understand Kenny G either.

    People can like it, people can hate it, and the church doesn’t need to enforce unnecessary laws on our stereos.

    However, if there is a doctrinal problem with a CCM tune, then the church should step in. But the argument must always be against false teaching, not legislating our radio dials.

  6. It’s a hard being a Christian amoung other Christians these days. It’s like, no matter what you do, you’re getting on the bad side of somebody.. I mean, my family treats itself better than how Christians do… and my impression from the Bible is that we are a family of believers.

    Pfft. Some family. When you start arguing over stupid stuff like “how theologically correct CCM is” you know things aren’t doin’ good…

  7. D2M:
    I would not equate “stupid stuff” with “how theologically correct CCM is.” Is it asking too much for Christian artists to think about what they write and sing, especially if their songs are used in a worship setting?

  8. Joleen,
    The way I see it, Christians buy bad art simply because it is “Christian.” So, even though people who listen to mainstream music will rarely buy music made by a Christian (whether good or not), Christians will buy just about anything as long as it has the “Christian” stamp of approval on it.
    I think you’re taking yourself a little too seriously. A couple questions: talking about whether CCM contains good theology or not is “stupid stuff”? See, because I think theology is pretty darn important. Theology is simply how one talks and thinks about God; everyone has theology and everyone is a theologian, regardless of whether they consider themselves such.
    I don’t know what you mean by being more open than Bunnie or I about what you listen to. I don’t know about Bunnie, but take a look through my cd case some day, and you’ll see about as wide a variety as you could imagine. That includes everything from good ol’ CCM (Petra, Altar Boys, Rich Mullins, etc.) to secular music (U2, Counting Crows, Bruce Cockburn, Damien Rice, Josh Ritter, even System of a Down); and from light stuff like Phil Keaggy to hardcore, hip-hop, rock, whatever. How open is that? As I’ve said before, I’m looking for good music that I like, not just stuff that is judged safe for consumption by the Christian music industry.


  9. “Christians will buy just about anything as long as it has the “Christian” stamp of approval on it. ”

    This is a true and annoying characteristic of many Christians, but we must remember that we are saved by grace, not by good taste. We must not tolerate false teaching EVER. That should be the first point of attack against CCM. The fact that this music often (but not always) leans toward the lame is secondary and less obnoxious in view of eternity.

    Don’t get me wrong: Christians ought to strive for goodness and beauty in all things, but we can cut CCM fans some slack. Just *some,* because it’s not entirely their fault. Many Christians listen to CCM because this is the music they hear at church. We ought to encourage people to bring “church things” into their homes and families! While we’re at it, let’s encourage them by giving them doctrinally-sound church music, like hymns and liturgy. Rather, let church leaders bring about this change so that we laypeople can benefit.

  10. Michael & Tim… I really really need to tell you that I did NOT mean that the way it sounded. Let me try again and not make as much of an ass out of myself…
    1: Theology is important, and I really am sorry I made it out to be like it wasn’t. It’s amazing the dumb things a person will say when they overthink a subject. I hope you can all forgive me for being so dumb to suggest otherwise.
    2: There is “bad” theology in some CCM. The best way I know how to fight this is not to buy the CD those groups produce. Which is what I do. But I can’t help it if people are being taught bad theology to begin with, and that causes them to be unaware of what’s being sung at them.
    3: I think there needs to be a distinction between Christian music and music made by Christians. And then people need to lay off those people who are Christians but don’t make music that is “Christian”. (Whatever that means…)
    4: And really, I don’t know what I meant about being “open” either. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t know anything about anything. Which just goes to enforce the theory I’ve had about myself for years anyway… *laughs*
    5: It just really bothers me that people argue over music. Especially music that is pro-God, Christ, Christianity, Church, etc etc… Can you understand what I mean? Because if you do, that’s what I’m trying to stay. That’s what I think is dumb. That people, good godly people, get so mad about this to begin with.

    I hope I haven’t made myself out to be as dumb as I feel… again. *sighs*

  11. Joleen,

    Good points.


    Good points as well. And no, you don’t seem dumb.

    I wish I could give my thoughts, but it is WAY past my bedtime. Good night, everyone!

  12. Have you never been to a youth group burning of “satanic” secular CDs? They happen. A lot. I know several great Christian musicians. However, their music doesn’t fit the CCM mold (not enough drum loops and cheesy BGVs?) and executives don’t sign them, despite their true talent. So, they scrape by as independent musicians. Even talented artists who are signed by the usual suspects (the Normals, Andrew Peterson) aren’t normally supported as well as their peers on the label with more CCM-bubble gum sounds. The whole industry is not at all committed to artistic excellence, but rather, what sounds like “positive, Christian radio!”

  13. Bunnie’s take on CCM isn’t interesting at all — it’s junvenile and I am a bit amazed that World allows such shallowness to go unchecked. It really doesn’t matter what a song says, or how it says it, she labels it all “crap.” I would really like to engage her in serious conversation about contemporary music written by Christians (Tim’s point about the music , but her reply is just to insult the person who disagrees with her. I like discussion, not diatribe.
    This blog (well, at least this page… I’ll have to pay more attention over here) looks more reasoned. But there’s something I just don’t get. in the opening ‘rant’ Timotheos disses CCM but he includes a verse by All Star United, and the main page here features a quote by Bill Mallonee. Both artists make real good contemporary music, and both are Christians. Is it just the label “CCM” that you object to? Or when you see “CCM” do you immediately narrow down to the “Christian Top 40” and push all the good Christian artists out of view?
    I’m not trying to be argumentative, I’m just trying to understand where artists like Mark Heard, Terry Taylor, Steve Taylor, et al. fit in this discussion. They seem to be excluded.
    Maybe it’s like Mark Heard once wrote: “I’m too sacred for the sinners and the saints wish I would leave.”

  14. No, Matt, that’s not it at all. If you were to look at my cd collection, most of it would fit under “CCM.” I’m more concerned about how Christian book stores will not sell much of the good music (such as you mentioned), but will sell bad art like Plus One, billions of clone worship cds, and other stuff, just because it sells. There’s no concern for creativity or originality there.
    But you miss my point if you think I don’t listen to CCM at all. I was weaned on it! My first albums were Altar Boys and Petra. Part of the problem is that much of the music that is made by Christians and actually original and well-made does not get sold in Christian book stores. Solid State (the hardcore section of Tooth and Nail) is not sold in Family Book Stores; Vigilantes of Love is not sold there; Over the Rhine is not sold there. Try to find Violet Burning, or Lost Dogs, or The Innocence Mission, or any number of other good bands and artists. Not going to happen. And yet they will sell John Tesh and garbage like that. What?


  15. Matt Strange wrote: Bunnie’s take on CCM isn’t interesting at all — it’s junvenile and I am a bit amazed that World allows such shallowness to go unchecked.

    Gee, thanks, Matt!

    You also wrote: It really doesn’t matter what a song says, or how it says it, she labels it all “crap.”

    Not true — I always analyze the lyrics from a theological and aesthetic perspective. I even liked one of the songs I reviewed.

    Matt also wrote: I would really like to engage her in serious conversation about contemporary music written by Christians . . . but her reply is just to insult the person who disagrees with her. I like discussion, not diatribe.”

    Matt, you are more than welcome to avoid my blog, but we have a lot of discussion. A TON of discussion. And many of us learn from it.

  16. OK, I think I see the difference. Your unhappy with what you find in book stores. As one who went through “the music wars” in the 70s and early 80s, the fact that anything at all is found in a Christian book store is a victory. The particulars of the selection doesn’t rile me.
    I can’t get too upset with the book stores – it’s kind of fun to ask if they have anything by “The Choir” and have the clerk ask “which choir?” – because the economics of survival dictate that they only stock items that move in quantity. (I used to work as a jobber in the computer industry and the same battle is waged there. Quality software isn’t stocked but the popular titles get prominent displays.) I’d love to be able to stop by the mall and pick up the last Smalltown Poets CD, but that’s just ain’t gonna happen.
    If this is the issue, the complaint lies with the buyers. The sellers just stock what the buyers want. You can blame “the industry” to some extent, but setting up straw man artists, because they are easy to knock down, is to me the least profitable option.
    Yeah, I know that’s a rather simplistic reply. But I think we’re on the same page.

  17. Okay, I see your point. But the battles won by people like Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill opened the floodgates for terrible music that was almost guaranteed to sell because it had the label “Christian” on it.
    I just think it’s amazing what the bookstores will do. For example, why was the P.O.D. album covered mostly in black? But they’ll still sell it anyway? And why will they sell stuff by John Tesh and other mainstream artists when they do a “Christian” record, but they won’t sell VOL when they have a song about faithful marital love (“Love Cocoon”)?
    But I don’t think I’m arguing with you on this.


  18. POD album covered in black: beats me, maybe somebody complained and they are trying to avoid offending a weaker brother.
    John Tesh: probably the potential volume sales overrule common sense.
    VOL & Love Cocoon: Yikes! Bill M. is a great songwriter, but that song makes me blush! I consider sex to be intensely personal (sort of like Adrian Monk when his shrink tries to get him to talk about it) and that one gets a little too descriptive for my comfort. But it is a spiritually positive song, despite my (dis)comfort level.
    OK, this has devolved to the point where we aren’t disagreeing at all. Time to move on! 🙂

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