Right now, Amy Grant is about where Julio Iglesias was two years ago, when the international pop star was still Who-lio? to most Americans.

She has sold millions of records, but until last month you'd have been hard pressed to find any of her nine albums in a commercial record store. She has developed a huge following, performing before 500,000 people last year alone, yet her concerts are seldom advertised to the general public. She's won three Grammies and a flock of Doves, but she's still virtually unknown to the record-buying masses.

Unlike Iglesias, who built his initial following in his native Spain and Europe, Amy Grant has done it right in the American heartland.

She is the biggest star in the burgeoning field of contemporary Christian music. Her positive pop celebrates God and the Christian life, an old message in a new medium. Powered by electric guitars and synthesizers, inspired by Top 40 radio, it is decidedly closer to '80s rock than traditional gospel.

It's also very attractive to millions of music fans, particularly teen-agers and young married couples who are turned off by mainstream rock's sexual obsessions.

Grant, now 25, has acquired many nicknames since she started recording nine years ago: the sweetheart of gospel; the Michael Jackson of Christian music; and briefly, but no longer, the Madonna of contemporary gospel.

She laughs at the last title, insisting it has nothing to do with the fact that she is an extremely attractive young woman with a penchant for leopard-skin jackets, designer jeans and barefoot performances, or the fact that she is projecting a confusingly sexy image for an avowedly spiritual singer.

"You just do what you do," she protests. "We haven't tried to arrive at any image. I mean, I don't want to be earthy if earthy is 1975 and here we are in 1985."

Here in 1985, Amy Grant is suddenly reaching out to a wider public, bridging the often troubled waters between sacred and secular music. She has signed with A & M Records, a deal that puts her for the first time into the pop mainstream, both on the retail level and in terms of radio exposure. Already her new album, "Unguarded," has broken onto the Adult Contemporary charts.

"I am really striving as an artist to be relevant and to communicate," she says. "I don't want to cling to the past. You become a musical has-been if you keep trying to make the music what it used to be."

Before the A & M deal, Grant managed to rack up impressive sales without the benefit of pop radio airplay or distribution outside the limited network of Christian record outlets. Her last album, "Straight Ahead," spent a solid year atop the inspirational charts; its predecessor, "Ages to Ages," spent three years on the charts. Those albums are quite different from earlier efforts, which reflected Grant's origins as a folkish singer so nervous and intimidated by the studio that she recorded much of her first album in the dark.

Now she tours in grand rock style -- Silver Eagle buses, tractor trailers jammed with 20 tons of lighting and sound equipment, a seven-piece band that includes her husband, songwriter-guitarist Gary Chapman. Sales of T-shirts and souvenir programs are as brisk as at any rock concert. She's also moving into increasingly larger venues, such as the Merriweather Post Pavilion, where she performs Aug. 17.

On the verge of becoming Christian pop's first platinum artist (she was its first gold solo artist), Grant is paying some dues for her spin in the limelight. A recent Rolling Stone piece portrayed her as a tough-talking, no-nonsense fundamentalist who is every bit as ambitious as the real Madonna, goes to Prince concerts (she doesn't enjoy the simulated masturbation) and frolicks naked on secluded African beaches.

"They made me sound a lot edgier than I feel," Grant says. "And I was quoted in a pretty colorful phrase at the beginning of the article when I was actually quoting someone else. It was out of context. But I felt like they were appealing to their clientele, and they approached me the way they approach a lot of artists. They're a gutsy magazine, they're liberal, they're going to pursue the things that give them their edge."

The beach incident occurred during a vacation, she explains, and involved a woman companion. "We threw off our clothes. Nobody was there, nobody saw us. It was such a free, wonderful, childlike experience. It was great. But then it can also be worded as 'let's get naked.' "

Such tidbits are fodder for fundamentalists who criticize Grant's increasingly worldly sound and appearances, although she says she "would never do anything that I thought would be offensive. I'm just trying to live my life the best way I can."

The flip side is that despite her pop trappings, commercial radio programmers have considered Grant too Christian, even though she is neither evangelist nor proselytizer. She is not pushy about her conservative convictions, but she is clear about her values. It has put her in a cultural nether world that she is just now escaping.

"I've never had an album that was released mainstream," she says. "They were always geared to a particular sector of America. I'm just pleased to have the attention. 'Unguarded' may not ever be Top 40, but I feel I've gotten so much support, especially from the church. Kids are calling radio stations, saying, 'That was gutsy of you to play that Amy Grant song.'

"Who ever thought that playing a song about God or Christian values would be an act of courage? Isn't that wild? Part of it is that radio stations feel they'll lose their edge if they associate with something good."

Even when that something good features a voice akin to early Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter, cloaked in new-wavish arrangements that could slip comfortably into rotation between Cyndi Lauper and Journey cuts.

"I would never have thought I'd fall for a voice like Cyndi Lauper," Grant says. "Ten years ago, in the face of Carole King, I'd have thought, why's she squawking? Now it's incredible, it's great. You hear something enough and you start to like it. It's like developing a taste for wine or fancy cheese. I want to grow, and I feel that musically America is the hottest place. I want to be influenced like everybody else -- I just don't want to sound like anybody else. I like what's happening musically. I want to be relevant."

"Unguarded" is less overt than its predecessors: There's no mistaking Grant's intentions, but words like "God," "Jesus" and "Lord" don't pop up like they used to. There's even a love song to her husband.

"If I found 10 songs about loving your husband or parents or being a good friend, I'd do 'em," Grant says. "I just want to sing songs that contain truth about life."

One of four daughters of a prominent Nashville radiologist, Amy Grant grew up comfortably middle class. Her earliest musical experience was familial, singing stern old hymns at the local Church of Christ. "I wouldn't call it un-joyful. I would call it very simple, at least in the sound. In the Church of Christ there is no instrumental music, but we used to sing loud and long and hard and joyfully."

Still, Grant showed no particular predilection to music until she started attending Harpeth Hall, an exclusive private school for girls. It was there that she picked up the guitar, and it was there that her fundamental religious beliefs began to take shape.

"The center of my understanding as a Christian," she says, "is that I daily recognize God as being king and Lord and that I recognize the deity of his son. It's not just waking up and saying that -- it's saying my life is affected because what I see is not the most important thing. It's the things that I don't see that are eternal. It just sheds a different light on whether or not you have a new pair of shoes."

In the mid-1970s, Grant started attending a new church, a nondenominational one down on Music Row near the Vanderbilt campus. "The first couple of times I visited the church, it was packed. And one of the first things I noticed was that a lot of the people weren't dressed up -- there were a lot of jeans, a lot of bare feet. You felt like the people came to hear what was happening there, to experience it. It wasn't to show that new dress or whatever."

She became a regular at the coffeehouse connected to the Belmont Church, which she still attends. "People would pack in. In the summer we sweated, in the winter we froze, and everybody just sang heartily. I began to understand that a Christian experience was not an isolated Sunday morning experience. The time that I spent with these people on Saturday night and Sunday morning was a little weekly fuel that was being added to what I was inspired to pursue apart from Saturday and Sunday."

Grant dates her Christian commitment to Bible studies in her early teens. Still, she was pursuing her faith nonmusically -- she wasn't even in a choir. Frustrated at not finding songs that appealed to her, she began writing her own at age 14. At one point she volunteered to perform at a vespers service, and a solid reaction from her fellow students convinced her to continue.

At 15 she had her first job in a recording studio -- sweeping the floor and demagnetizing tapes. A producer heard a demo tape and auditioned her over the phone to Texas-based Word Records, the world's largest producer of contemporary Christian records. They signed her.

Nine years down the road, Christian music is much bigger, and much different, than when Amy Grant started. Gospel music of all kinds accounts for about 5 percent of all record sales, a larger percentage than classical or jazz. While some pop artists have surprised longtime fans with their declarations of Christian faith, increasing numbers of Christian bands now work within familiar rock contexts. There's even a heavy metal outfit, Stryper.

"All of us are vocal about what we think," Grant says.

Part of what she thinks is that the biblical exhortation to make a joyful noise applies not only to lyrics but to the beat as well. That's long been the case in black gospel music, but its white counterpart still tends to muffle musical exuberance.

"It's just a crime when that happens, because music communicates a lot," Grant says vehemently. "I know when I look at a song, I definitely look at the whole package. As important as the words are, the music is just as important -- they're both communicating."

Today this communication is a little more widely directed, or at least accessible. Grant makes it clear that she's not abandoning the Christian audiences that have supported her, but reaching out to embrace more people.

"I feel it's a mistake to define what someone does by their audience rather than by looking at what they're doing. When people express shock at the idea of 'crossover,' they're assuming that you're leaving something essential behind. I want to keep singing what I've always sung, but I see an opportunity to do both -- to sing for a larger audience and to keep singing truth.

"And then I just go wooo-ooo! Do it! Go for it!"

She points out that bridges cross both ways, touch down on both sides. "It's so silly when you talk about a Christian audience and a secular audience, because people are people. Everybody struggles with everything.

"Why isolate yourself? Your life isolates you enough. I'm isolated when I walk into a room and somebody says 'she's a Christian' and nobody offers me a joint and all the coke disappears. I don't want it anyway, but it doesn't mean that we can't be friends."

The dichotomy runs within the Christian music community as well. After the recent Dove Awards (the gospel equivalent of the Grammys), Grant and several dozen Christian singers came together as The Cause, their version of USA for Africa.

"Some people were saying that just because our song mentioned Jesus, it was a more spiritual effort, as if that made it better. Being good and loving, there's value in that, and a lot of people pursue that. I feel like sometimes we don't credit people with being good -- if they don't claim Christ, it has no value. Love has value. If we could get over that hump in our songwriting, we could still communicate Christ . . .

"For me the best way to communicate is to be available emotionally to the mainstream and to realize that everybody is human, and whether or not you believe in God or in Jesus there is a fellowship of man that oftentimes the church tends to ignore. It's a fellowship of people, and Jesus often referred to the family at large, brothers and sisters of any kind.

"Now, what's going to happen eternally, who knows? But sometimes we alienate ourselves, become exclusive, and say we're better, that because we've accepted Christ's love it makes us something special . . .

"For me to recognize that shortcoming and that part of humanity in myself makes me a lot more understanding of my human sister, Madonna. Madonna's doing what Madonna feels right about, and just on the human side, I accept her as a person. She feels insecurity and love and passion and loneliness and joy just like I feel it.

"The United States is embracing Madonna's opinion of life. Just give me a chance to get my side across."