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.
Feelings of ambivalence are on display at the songwriting workshop run by Clifton's Stafford-based company, God-Song. Lecturers at the sessions emphasize to participants that they should not use earthly standards to judge whether they are "making it" in their musical career.
"The fact that you are using your God-given talents to communicate God's message to the churched and unchurched is, in God's eyes, the true sign of 'making it,' " Randy Motz regularly tells participants who hear his "Declaration of Independence" speech. "Be satisfied with always being an independent artist; a major-label deal is a bonus," Motz, a producer who has lectured at the workshops, says in the speech.
But Clifton also advises participants not to get too specific about religious doctrine in their lyrics, even as he worries that the industry might be trying too hard to be nonconfrontational.
"There are many types of churches, and how they interpret the Bible is different. Like, for example, we don't want to put out a song that all Baptists will hate," he said in an interview. "I don't think you'd see someone do a cover about abortion, because 10 percent of Christians believe in choice."
Rebekah McLeod, 32, said she feels the tension between the commercial and spiritual aspects of her art every day. She wrote music for the first time in 2002, when family pressures sent her into deep, intense prayer. "I was spending a lot of time with God, getting to know Him in a new way," said McLeod, who lives in Germantown with her husband and three children.
She started coming up with music and lyrics, and she kept the ideas in a journal under her bed for six months. Finally, she said, "the music began to literally pour out of me. I was writing prolifically, and I thought: 'Maybe this is something God wants me to do?' " She entered and won an annual songwriting contest sponsored by God-Song. That meant a free recording session, which led to a glossy Web site, a CD and regular concerts at churches and coffeehouses in the Washington area.
These days, she prays for a sense of what God wants her to do next: Should she try to join a major label? Should she get a radio promoter? If she becomes commercially successful, would she feel pressure to make deadlines and crank out songs that didn't "necessarily glorify God, but were just trying to meet a goal?"
McLeod said she is turned off by a lot of the new Christian songs she hears, songs she believes reflect an emotion-oriented and self-absorbed U.S. culture.
"I think we're seeing a lot of empty music and empty lyrics," she said. "A lot of what I hear on mainstream Christian radio sounds like garbage; I'm not being ministered by it."
When she finds herself writing about such things as her own woes, she has a routine: "I say, 'This is all about you having a pity party,' and I throw it out."
She said she is also bothered by songs that link God to the goal of having a happy, comfortable and prosperous life. "Paul said we should want to experience the sufferings of Christ. . . . The best songs are the ones that diminish us, that make us smaller and God bigger."
With lyrics that speak directly to God, praise and worship music lends itself to being sung by congregations during worship services, and several industry experts say that helps explain why it is so popular and marketable. Services at large, nondenominational churches have become increasingly multimedia, and performing a song in that setting -- or simply having it played there -- can be as financially lucrative as being booked at a popular nightclub.
"Churches are the new radio," said John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, which represents all Christian music styles. "You have a kind of music here that engages tens of millions of people every Sunday."
Joyner, a pastor of congregational worship at Fairfax Community Church, plays for thousands of people a month at churches, conferences, retreats and colleges. Sitting in Fairfax Community's glass-walled, hotel-like lobby, he said he is trying to balance the performer's lifestyle with the biblical imperative to honor God.
"We have a stardom mentality, and people who should be looking at Christ sometimes do that to humans, to rock stars, to Christian rock stars. And I have the same tendencies, so I'm talking to myself, too," said Joyner, who is married and the father of two and works with the church's graphics and drama directors to craft inspiring services in a 21st-century vein.
At the same time, people in the Christian music industry say, the benefits of corporate America's attention are obvious: better writing, higher-quality production and a medium that can reach -- and preach -- far beyond current believers.
Even as he talks about being careful not to create a "Chris Joyner persona," Joyner spells out goals that would have been virtually unheard of a decade ago for a contemporary Christian singer.
"My goal," he said, "is to have an impact on the United States, or maybe broader, that God will use me through songwriting -- that I will have an impact on the people who are the next generation of worship leaders."