On Faith

Lure of Stardom a Sour Note in Praise Songs

Becky Cotter, left, on keyboards, and Christian contemporary singer Chris Joyner, of Fairfax, perform at Centreville Baptist Church in Virginia.
Becky Cotter, left, on keyboards, and Christian contemporary singer Chris Joyner, of Fairfax, perform at Centreville Baptist Church in Virginia. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.

Looking at row after row of Christian music CDs in the Fredericksburg Wal-Mart, Clint Clifton glimpses the seeds of something grand -- a golden period for Christian artists that could rival 12th-century France or 15th-century England.

The Christian selections fill about one-eighth of the megastore's music department. Having spent the past three years promoting and training young Christian musicians, Clifton can't help but smile; he is living in a boom time.

But the goateed 26-year-old sees other things on the wire shelves, too. He picks up a CD by the teenage band Jump 5 and tsks. The group doesn't write most of its songs, and Clifton suspects that it began as a moneymaking "concept" in a music company's marketing department, not as a divinely inspired prayer, as Christian music should.

He flips over a top-selling CD and marvels at the name of the label: Time-Life.

"Seeing Time-Life on a Christian CD is still pretty weird," said Clifton, who lives in Stafford and is pastor at Pillar Church in Dumfries. "It's a good thing as a whole, but I don't necessarily think being bigger is always a good thing. It's a fine line."

For musicians of what's broadly called "contemporary Christian" -- a category that includes pop, folk and hard rock -- these are heady times. Sales have increased 80 percent since 1995, according to the Gospel Music Association. The growth has prompted Christian musicians who in the past would have been happy just to sing at their own church to venture into a landscape of major record labels, thriving Christian radio stations and music publishers capable of sending songs to megachurches from Los Angeles to Orlando.

But many of these artists find built-in conflicts. How do you focus on what sells without selling out that original listener, God? How do you make sure the music remains a vehicle for praising God and not the singer?

"Sometimes I'm singing and performing and 10 minutes go by and I realize: I haven't thought about the God I'm talking about," said Chris Joyner, 31, a Fairfax pastor and musician who has put out three CDs. "I might be thinking about: How does the music sound? What's going on outside? How does this look?

"I know I have pride, I have selfishness. And it's then I say: 'Jesus, teach me ways to root it out. Keep me humble.' "

When contemporary Christian music took off in the 1990s, some artists feared that the purchase of independent religious labels by such mainstream companies as the EMI Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment would result in secularized lyrics. Industry experts say that hasn't happened. In fact, the most prominent trend in contemporary Christian music is "praise and worship," a style of songwriting in which the lyrics are overtly pious and the singer talks directly to God.

But regardless of whether God is mentioned, nascent Christian songwriters say the popularity of Christian music has created pressure to follow certain formulas and conventions. That, along with the widening prospects of celebrity, has blurred the lines between faith and business.


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