Last Tuesday, Jars of Clay released a studio LP called “Redemption Songs.” It’s a minor landmark: The brightest star of the ’90s mainstreaming of Christian rock has recorded a worship album. It’s innovative by that genre’s standards, using the texts of old hymns to add an emotional and theological depth sometimes missing from contemporary white worship. But it’s the first time Jars have recorded an album entirely unsuitable for secular radio.
Why does this matter? Settle in. Our story starts with the unique role of worship music in the Christian music scene. It’s a little bit like that of dance music in R&B. There can be wide ranges of emotions and subjects in R&B and hip-hop, but the big single is likely to be the club-oriented song. I suspect this is because dance music builds communities. Dance brings people together, especially the young people advertisers love. Among Christians, worship music serves that same function. There are Christians making all kinds of music informed by the faith, but worship is the baseline.
In nearly all times and places where there’s been a viable Christian music scene, that scene has centered on churches and music for their use. So like their predecessors Bach and Vaughn Williams, the Jesus Music scene and its earliest CCM offshoots usually gave the church at least a glance. Rich Mullins, an exemplary ’80s talent, made his first splash with a worship song and is known best for two of his mid-period worship songs, although that was hardly his only milieu.
I came of age, therefore, during a relatively anomalous period in Christian music. On the one hand, bands from within the subculture were getting mainstream radio play. In 1995, you could hear Jars or dc Talk on alternative-rock stations alongside Green Day. On the other hand, there were the “contemporary” worship songwriters, most of whose stuff sounded just like the worship music of the ’80s, which sounded basically like the treacly adult contemporary of the ’80s and early ’90s. At my church, most of the kids went to and worshipped honestly in the contemporary service, but everyone knew it was bad music. Nobody listened to that stuff outside of church.
I’m not sure when the record labels realized how huge the market for worship music actually was. It might’ve been with the first City on a Hill project, which brought several Christian-rock stars together for a worship album. The opener, “God of Wonders,” produced a sensation the first time my church played it in the fall of 2000. It was a tremendously effective worship song, and it sounded good to boot. Everyone I knew went out and bought the album it was on. Or it might have been a couple of months earlier, when Third Day came out with their first “Offerings” album. That had a similar vibe: a mix of live and worship songs, done by one of the most popular Christian rock bands. It’s their only platinum record to date.
So began the huge trend of the early oughts. Christian rock bands started turning themselves into or collaborating with worship bands. The results have been very good for the industry. A couple of years ago I walked by a record store that had Billboard’s Top 200 for that week posted in its window. There were 10 Christian albums up there, eight of them worship-oriented. The punch line is, the second and third spots were held by “American Idol” graduates, and the first by 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying.”
As far as the Christian music industry is concerned, church is the new radio. Good worship songs by top Christian rock artists get played in churches because they’re good worship songs. People buy the albums because they’re also pretty good rock songs. Everyone gains, except for those Christian artists who see their music as some combination of art and commerce rather than ministry.
I’m constitutionally averse to crying “sellout” on the bands that have kept this trend up. It’s overused. Too many Christian bands have gotten called that simply for getting secular radio play. If anything, the movement here is arguably in the opposite direction. White worship music written since the ’60s has never had much crossover appeal. By pushing Christian bands to write worship music, the labels are actually turning the community further inward. It’s like focusing on base turnout rather than swing-voter appeal.
If anything, it’s the churches that have been sold out here. Old-fashioned contemporary worship music was always a slow but steady seller, often on independent labels. But the effect of making rock bands produce worship albums has been to turn the worship service into a marketing space for Big Content.
That’s been true of American Christianity for generations, to some extent. Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven” franchise is only the newest highly profitable trend in Christian book publishing. But such Christian-specific publishing has never had much effect on the broader North American culture. Christians are supposed to be part of the redemption of the world. We can’t do that while we’re just selling to ourselves.
Despite this inward turn, there are Christian musicians making a difference in the larger marketplace. U2 have never been more overtly worshipful than on their last couple of smash-hit tours. Sufjan Stevens inspires raves on indie bellwether Pitchfork and gets songs about Jesus played on “The O.C.” But they’ve done it without the evangelicals, whom they see as (surprise!) self-righteous, inwardly focused, and irrelevant to the real changes afoot in the world. A worship album from Jars of Clay isn’t helping.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.