It’s the question that’s plagued the Christian music industry since its infancy: What is “Christian” music? Most will say its the lyrical content of the songs that sets Gospel and Christian music apart, leading to a genre that boasts an inspirational message cast in a variety of sonic settings.
While pop remains at the core, with Southern Gospel, Black Gospel, folk, rock, and hip-hop joining in, Christian music has become a melting pot of sounds. And while the average listener doesn’t give much thought to the definition of Christian music, industry gatekeepers continue to spark debate over what songs and albums will make the final cut.
The age-old discussion was reignited when LifeWay Christian Stores made the decision to not carry Amy Grant’s holiday album, Tennessee Christmas (Capitol CMG)—her first new seasonal offering in nearly 20 years. The prominent retailer claimed the album didn’t possess enough “Christian” content, leaving industry insiders, critics, and fans alike baffled and outraged.
“Does the name Jesus need to be said for His love to be shown or His message to be lived and shared?” wrote Grant’s manager, Jennifer Cooke, in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
On social media, Grant responded to the retailer’s resolution saying, “We respectfully accept LifeWay’s decision that my new Christmas album didn’t meet their criteria. Let’s all move on from that decision without arguing about it. But let’s not stop asking the questions about what it means to live in faith and reflect love to the world around us.”
LifeWay’s choice didn’t diminish sales. Tennessee Christmas crested Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart, garnering Grant her 17th No. 1 on the list and giving her the most No. 1 albums in the chart’s history. This isn’t the first time Grant has experienced backlash from the Christian industry, lest we forget 1991’s crossover pop smash Heart In Motion.
Matter of Interpretation
Perhaps the question of what constitutes Christian music continues to be raised because there’s no clear-cut answer.
“I don’t actually love drawing lines around songs as ‘Christian’ or ‘not Christian.’ As a songwriter who is a Christian, I may write some songs that use the name of Jesus or reference God, and I may write some that don’t,” offers Grammy-winner Seth Mosley, who’s produced and written songs for artists as diverse as for KING & COUNTRY and country newcomers High Valley. “Every songwriter has his or her calling. I love writing songs that you can sing in church, but I also love writing songs about relationships. Ultimately, I think God receives glory both ways.”
Artists like Skillet, NEEDTOBREATHE, and Switchfoot have proven you can do both successfully. Although all three bands, at various times throughout their careers, have had their faith-infused music debated on both sides of the equation. Skillet cut their teeth in the Christian market long before they achieved success on the secular side.
“From our vantage point, it seemed counterproductive to try and contend that they were not a Christian band that came out of the Christian industry,” says Skillet’s longtime manager Zach Kelm of the group’s mainstream success. “However, we always felt that Skillet’s music worked in both marketplaces and would be impactful for Christians and non-Christians alike.”
He sees few artists with crossover potential currently being developed, giving him cause for concern. “The CCM industry needs to continue to evaluate its mission and purpose. I’m concerned that many acts like Skillet and so many of our artists from the past would not get signed today due to how narrow the format has become,” he observes. “For a manager who has firsthand seen the global impact for the cause of faith Skillet has had, it causes me to pause and think of those we are perhaps precluding from our industry and what that means for our future.”
The discussion might be ongoing, and the answer to the belabored question might be as illusive as it is subjective. However, continuing to ask the question might force us to see Christian music in an ever-evolving light. And Grant proposes that may be the very best place for us to start, encouraging fans on social media with this gem: “Asking questions opens all of us up to the possibility of being willing to consider how we might live differently.”