So I have this theory—and it’s based strictly on what I’ve observed and no true insider knowledge at all, so take it as one music fans unsolicited two cents. The Christian music industry has been fading for a decade now—much of that due to a generation that listens to music differently, but also due to some deliberate choices to chase profitability over art. Not all of this fault lays at the feet of artists, but Undoubtedly some does. I believe the start of this crumble came 10-15 years prior (in the mid to late 90s), though that’s a discussion for another time. It basically had to do with major mainstream labels buying out smaller Christian labels.
Now, I should probably stop here and say that this blog will barely scratch the surface of reasons, research, and nuance that this topic truly needs so please take it in with the broad brush strokes that I attempt to paint it with. With that said, I believe one of the biggest turning points of the Christian Music industry was that fateful day twenty years ago today on September 11th, 2001. On the same day of unspeakable tragedy and terror, two albums released to little attention, as it was rightly diverted elsewhere. Two industry veterans—one a beloved icon and another a scrappy hard rock/metal band from San Diego released what would become important albums for a genre and nation that they had no idea would need comfort, as we grieved.
Two roads: P.O.D., Michael W. Smith, and the Christian Music Industry
P.O.D. May have felt to some as if they had “sprung up” out of nowhere in 2001, but they had been making music as the four piece they are known for since 1994. Their 1999’s album The Fundamental Elements of Southdown was released by major label Atlantic and spawned the hits “Southdown,” and “Rock the Party (Off the Hook),” which the video also reached MTV’s TRL (total request live) hosted by Carson Daly. Then 2001’s Satellite blew the band into the stratosphere on the strength of three singles “Alive,” “Youth of the Nation,” and “Boom.” Both “Alive” and “Youth of the Nation” became rallying cries for young people in search of hope, and amazingly a Christian band was positioned and poised to provide it. Clearly the foursome had struck a nerve. Right album. Right songs. Right time.
One can hardly fault CCM veteran Smitty for making this album, it seemed like (and I choose to believe) that his heart was truly in the execution of this night of worship, with many of his friends in the choir and audience. Worship music had been around on the fringes since the 70s, and Smith himself had always had a tune or two per album that bore the mark of what most would call a Congregational worship song. The songs “Agnus Dei,” “Great is the Lord,” “Thy Word,” and “How Majestic Is Your Name” from his early work all spring to mind in support of this thought. With a nation suddenly interested in church attendance, religion, and seeking answers these cover song on Worship provided a familiar voice and familiar tunes to act as a healing balm. Right album. Right Songs. Familiar voice. Right time.
I also believe these two albums presented the CCM industry with a choice, and that choice has shifted things in a drastically different way than it could have gone—though I don’t believe it’s too late. Though the industry is currently wobbling on unbalanced legs, I think it’s still possible to reach the roaring lambs vision of the late Bob Briner that he so passionately laid out in the late 90s.
Read a sample here: https://joshbalogh.files.wordpress.com/2021/09/3f62c-roaringlambs_excerpt.pdf
Christian music began as an “accidental” genre, due to the gap seen by Larry Norman and other Jesus Movement musicians in the 60s, who had come to love Christ, but still wanted to rock. It was music for the rock n roll generation minus the debauchery. I don’t believe any of those Jesus hippies could have foreseen that an entire industry or genre would spring from their simple love of Jesus and music—But an entire genre based on the lyrical content? It’s absolutely unheard of prior, or since. Once profit became a part of the picture as the genre blossomed in the 80s and 90s the needed balance of art vs profit reached its tipping point, and these two albums showed a way forward into a new decade.
However, while a balanced approach could have been taken to minister to the church AND make music full of gospel hope minus the Christianese buzzwords—it’s clear what label owners, decision makers, and even artists themselves chose. The absolute flood of worship cover albums and worship centric content from bands and artists not previously in those lanes was astounding. For every Delirious, and MWS previously incorporating worship into their live sets and albums there were a dozen copycats. Even the “pop” music of the time became very cookie cutter and homogenized, and increasingly so in the 2010s.
Disappointingly, Smith himself succumbed—-though I don’t believe that MWS set out to direct an entire industry inward, I do believe he choose to follow the trend on subsequent releases. I don’t necessarily fault him for this, though I do wish he would have used his influence differently. He could have chosen to return to his pop roots, and stretched beyond his comfort zone—instead he joined the flood of trend chasers that would inevitably follow, further narrowing the focus of an industry already obsessed with preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, it became an all-too familiar game of “follow the money.” This is the broad brush painting I was speaking of so forgive me in advance—It’s unfair to many who tried to buck the trend, but also largely true. The decision by many to chase left many who wouldn’t on the outside without a path forward. That is until more recently with the availability and affordability of technology advancements.
On the flip side, now that there is an ease and affordability of recording, nearly every church with a budget has produced albums of their in house music, and mega churches like Hillsong and Bethel have yearly releases consumed by listeners the world over. All of this while independent musicians of faith struggle to make ends meet with fewer end fewer ears listening to their songs about life, love, and other mysteries.
But this isn’t intended to be a post bashing Christian music, or even artists who are just trying to make a living. Nor is it a “get off my lawn” fist-shake at those currently making this generations version of Christian music. Really, as a long time fan of everything Christian music released from its inception on, and a student who loves to read and research, this is my call for something more. Something more balanced, more daring—less safe. After all, music that is “safe for the whole family” doesn’t make it good, just as “good” Christ-informed art isn’t likely to be “safe.” A certain quote about The Chronicle’s of Narnia’s Aslan comes to mind…
All this to say—-I love music. I love music that is Holy Ghost haunted, and that means there should be some for believers AND unbelievers. This is my call for labels, artists, and listeners to demand more from our music. It will take vision, guts, and digging for the good stuff—and I for one believe it’s worth the effort.
So dig listener! Don’t settle for an algorithm to pick out music similar to what your already know. Check out indievisionmusic.com, jesusfreakhideout.com, or take some time on bandcamp to discover a new artist. For any style or genre you prefer there is true gold waiting to be discovered, but search and dig a little you must! Ask your friends what they’re listening to. Buy what you like, don’t just stream it! Turn off the radio and bust out a vinyl record and slow down to take it in with the lyrics in hand. If we all do our part, I believe we can better balance and bless a world so desperately longing for more of the same.
Again, now twenty years later Christian music is ripe for renewal and balance—but will the listener require it?! That remains to be seen, though I remain hopefully doing my part to listen better and point others toward the good stuff to do the same.
Happy listening friends! – Josh
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” 
I look forward to your deeper dive. Thanks for such engaging material.
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You bet! I’m so glad people enjoy it!
Great piece. I’d love to see a series that digs deeper into this topic. Sheaffer talks about how “Christian” art should be setting the standard for quality, not merely aping popular culture. I think that the glut of worship or Christmas projects from CCM artists demonstrates this pretty well.
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Yes! I do hope to delve deeper in to the great thinkers of the past on the topic like Schaeffer, Bob Briner, A.W. Tozer and others. I think it’s worth a deeper dive. Thanks for reading and commenting!