How Popular Culture Affected Contemporary Christian and Worship Music

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It is important to note that Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) is often seen as a sub-genre of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) however both intertwine and throughout history have developed along a similar path. Popular Culture’s influence on both types of music can be grouped together because artists can be easily found to cover both of these genres. Only in the last few decades has CCM and CWM become a world wide industry. Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is a genre which is constantly changing and adapting its sound and approach to the music industry.

Sounds adopted from Popular Music

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, white evangelical leaders condemned rock and roll music. If one jumps 50 years later the CCM industry is a multi-million pound industry which is still growing to this day. It is important to add that this isn’t the first dramatic change in approach in the 20th century. Black Christians in America had a development in the earlier decades of the 20th century with the growing influence of popular culture on their worship. Afro-Pentecostalism incorporated European hymnody, black spirituals, blues and jazz. Afro-Pentecostal artists were at the forefront of establishing and advancing what is now black gospel music. This immersion of black gospel music acted as a precursor for what was about to happen with Christian Worship Music. In the 1980’s the Vineyard Fellowship, led by John Wimber began worshipping with influences from rock music and the worship band would use standard rock instruments as their basic set-up during times of worship. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s this musical format began spreading across America and later on across the world.

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In his dissertation on the history of christian worship music in modern america, Wen Reagan states that the answer to how rock music made its way from being condemned to an intrical part of CCM and to church services is based around five different categories: ‘historical, demographic, theological, economic, and technological’. The Jesus People Movement in the 60’s was countercultural to the hippie movement and were reaching out to hippies who brought their guitars along to services and after they had established this, young people began writing new songs for the church with their influence of rock music. Reagan also states that ‘The emphasis lay on the exciting freshness of new songs and the belief that God was providing a new message through the music.’ This ‘freshness’ was attractive and even the evangelicals who had condemned rock music were softening their views when they saw this vibrant new music emerging. In the 1980’s as the Vineyard Fellowship, led by John Wimber, emerged ‘Songs had no set ending and could be adapted to respond to the energy of the congregation and the cadence of the pastor.’ In the 1990’s, Record Labels and distribution companies, specific to CCM, began to pop up and by the 2000’s Christian music began to move into arenas and much larger venues.

‘The import of contemporary musical forms into the church has challenged the sermon’s preeminence in the liturgy as congregants are drawn to the affective power of rock music (contemporary worship music), its ability to create a powerful, emotional experience of quiet intimacy or loud, celebratory joy with God.’ – Wen Reagan. The Vineyard Fellowship pioneered the growth and development of worship music, as it became such an important part of not only church services but of people’s daily lives. Their music was very simple and this was because the simpler the song, the more the congregation could engage and proclaim the words as truth. Music became a tool to lead people into intimacy with God. Travis Reginald Joseph Doucette writes in his thesis for Senior Honours that ‘In an effort to reach lost people and speak in relevant musical language, modern worship music found a home in churches embracing charismatic theology.’ Doucette explains it well with the phrase ‘relevant musical language’. Worship isn’t supposed to be something confusing and hard to listen or sing along to. It is supposed to be accessible for anyone to engage in worship.

Sociological situations in the 60’s and 70’s

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of massive social change which dramatically affected popular culture and the music industry and these two decades were home to many new genres.

The counterculture in the 1960’s is difficult to break up into sections because the project aim for many people, involved in the re-shape of culture, was to merge politics, society and culture together. George McKay, in his book on the social and countercultural 1960’s in the USA, talks of radical culture and lists the things involved in the huge change of the 1960’s. ‘music, ways of living, youth and other social movements,’ The younger generation pioneered lots of the changes in society through protesting and there seemed to be a generation gap growing. The emergence of a drug culture played a part in the rise of the hippie movement. The hippie movement were also drawn to meditation, the occult and Native American spirituality and incorporated that into their lives. The movement however faced problems including overcrowding, crime and sexually transmitted diseases. A new wave of hippies began to pop up called ‘Jesus-Freak’ evangelists who encouraged people to follow Jesus Christ and forsake drugs and promiscuous sex. After integrating with a local baptist church, Ted Wise and other ‘Jesus-Freaks’ started a movement of people called ‘Street Christians’ with Pastor John MacDonald who created a coffeehouse called ‘The Living Room’ to help Hippies who were becoming homeless, hungry and sick. As this was going on in the late 1960’s others in the same area, near Haight-Ashbury where the hippies were pouring into, were beginning to preach on the streets. This grew at a rapid pace and by 1969, the interaction between hippie christians and evangelicals was happening all over the United States. The youth were drawn towards the Jesus People because they were very enthusiastic about the use of folk, rock and pop music. This was not the case in terms of the traditional church. In Fact the traditional church frowned upon the use of popular music and the integration of popular culture and Christianity. By the late 1970’s the Jesus People movement died down as that generation got older and ran out of steam but effect of the movement was enormous in terms of Christian music and the development of the evangelical church. The movement changed evangelical Christians attitude towards popular culture and the up-beat and rock influence of the Jesus people practically created the Contemporary Christian Music industry. As the years rolled on hymns, choirs and organs were replaced by worship bands and electric guitars. The Vineyard Denomination trace their roots back to the Jesus People movement. The Vineyard Denomination now have over 2,500 churches in six continents.

During the 1960’s and progressing into the 1970’s there were numerous campaigns for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. Small peace movements were energised by social activists and these small groups of students or activist grew into national marches, international campaigning, teach-ins on campus and many other large protests.

The cold war, the Vietnam war and other political conflicts led to separation globally and at points things seemed hopeless. Lots of the push for social change came from the younger generation and American youth played a key role in the political protests if this era. The 1960’s and 70’s were a scary time for people in terms of politics and conflict. Along with protesting, people wanted to find an escape or a way out from the fears of the times which led to the youth experimenting with drugs and sex and other methods. This is where popular culture drastically changed and where evangelicals adapted, not because they were being changed by popular culture, but because they wanted to reach out to people who were surrounded by popular culture. One of the main ways the church did this was through music. This is why modern worship music and CCM can be so closely linked to popular music and rock music.

Lyrical Content of Contemporary Christian and Worship Music

It is important to remember CCM’s significance and individuality in the world of music. Where most art forms are marketed as a product, CCM is all about it being an activity – something to join in with. Worship music is often portrayed as a congregational music and that the band who is leading the congregation is not performing but worshiping Jesus Christ.

Obviously as popular culture progressed from the 1960’s so did worship music and Contemporary Christian Music. There are similarities in the lyrical content that run throughout the development of CCM and CWM however there are also many differences that can tie into the development of popular music but also relate to the decade of which any particular worship songs was written. The exception being hymns, that many contemporary christian bands and artists occasionally play during a time of worship.

Even though there has been a massive development of the lyrical content in CCM in the last 60 years there is an overall residing theme that ties all of the music together. The word of God, The Holy Bible, is and will always be closely linked to Christian music. However CWM is a lot more lyrically based on the scriptures than CCM. Some Christians argue that CCM is so subtle that sometimes you cannot tell the difference between CCM songs and secular songs. For example, Todd Friel, a presenter on Wretched Radio, posted a video on youtube titled ‘Of course Ellen loves Lauren Daigle’. In this 11 minute long opinion piece he shared his views on, what was at the time, one of the top celebrity stories. Lauren Daigle, a CCM artist, topped the secular and Christian charts in the US in 2018 and appeared on the Ellen Show and sang one of her songs from her latest album. Ellen De Generes, the show host, praised the song by Daigle and Todd Friel argued that the reason Ellen loved the song so much, and allowed Lauren to perform on her show, was because the words were “written in such a way that the lyrics can’t be offensive” and he suggested that “no Christian can ever be fed by it” because of the lack of “robust theology”. This is a very one sided view as Friel misses a lot of details about Lauren Daigle and her performance. Many CCM artists write lyrics that don’t directly mention the words Jesus, God or Holy Spirit but are written in a way that reflects their personal journey with Jesus or that talks about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This makes the music a lot more accessible to secular audiences and also allows artists, such as Lauren Daigle, to perform at secular events and shows. The main point that Todd Friel missed is that CCM isn’t supposed to be just for Christians but is in fact a method of outreach and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. Another incredible band, who write lyrics about God that secular audiences love singing along to, are Skillet. A Christian heavy rock band. They play at so many secular festivals and have a large following of secular audiences. Their songs such as Feel Invincible, Monster and Undefeated are all very popular and the lyrics are really powerful, written so that you wouldn’t realise they were singing about Jesus unless you thought about the lyrics and what they are trying to say in their songs.

Contemporary Worship Music is seen as a lot more theological and is used more in church settings than outreach settings. The lyrics are insync with the scriptures and are often songs of praise, thankfulness, invitation, expectancy and surrender. Also, CWM is a lyrically based music because it is through the words that the congregation come together and worship the living God. Worship is also sometimes called sung prayer because it is praying to God through singing. During worship, followers of Jesus have deep encounters with the Holy Spirit where there is healing spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally and Christians believe that worship has the power to change things in their lives and in the lives of every single person who gives their life to Jesus and has a relationship with him. Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship with the living God.

Popular culture and popular music’s influence on Contemporary Christian and Worship Music has changed the approach to evangelism and sharing the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. The change in the sound and approach to worship music made worshipping Jesus more accessible and more congregational. CCM and CWM are now two world wide industries that are growing and becoming more widely accepted among the global church and secular audiences. Closing this piece will be a quote from John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Movement. “Show me where you spend your time, money and energy and I’ll tell you what you worship.”

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