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Entries in contemporary christian music (5)


The Gift of the Early Era of CCM

CCM's Story is My Story

For me, historical reflection on Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is always autobiographical. My life is intertwined with its development, because its songs are the songs of my upbringing. Isn’t it always the case that the songs present during our most formative and developmental years of faith stick in us perhaps more deeply than any others? Perhaps it’s the power of nostalgia, or perhaps it’s something deeper.

CCM is certainly disparaged by a lot of folks right now. It has fallen under scrutiny for its trite expression of Christianity, its suffering-less-ness, its fake or ignorant positivity, its moralistic therapeutic deism. A charitable read of its early history, which would involve listening to the hearts and testimonies of some of its founders, movers, and shakers (not just coldly analyzing historical anecdotes or other thinkers’ analyses), speaks a different message, which I’d like to highlight.

The Blessing of Being "Imprinted"

I was sitting on my couch last week, thinking about Psalm 24’s hefty rhetorical Q & A: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” I was thinking about my dirty hands and my impure heart. I was thinking about Jesus’ hands and heart being the only answer to this Psalm, and then out from under my subconscious popped that early chorus from my childhood: “I Lift My Eyes Up” (1990), by Brian Doerksen. That setting of Psalm 121 became my prayer to Jesus that morning. A simple prayer of need, turning my eyes, yet again, off myself and onto my only Hope.

I started reflecting on the amount of Psalm-chunks I know by heart simply because early CCM (which, back then, wasn't a capitalized acronym...just a lower case descriptor) gave them to me in digestible, meditative portions (think “I Waited for the Lord On High” [Psalm 40], “As the Deer” [Psalm 42],  “To Every Generation” [Psalm 90]). Now before we jump to the usual critical places—“they were partial and didn’t display the spirit of the whole Psalm,” “they were affixed to trite music,” “they were cheesy,” etc.—let’s take a step back and ask what was happening at the time...what the founders were thinking.

A Presbyterian Gets Schooled by a Calvary Dude

Not long ago, I had a conversation with Chuck Fromm, one of the founders of Maranatha! Music and one of the thinkers behind many of the early project (including Psalms Alive, where we got a lot of these songs). He told me…now keep in mind that Chuck is a Calvary Chapel Jesus Movement dude speaking to me, a young Presbyterian…that his inspiration for getting these projects was none other than John Calvin, who employed the best poets and musicians he could find in his day to reimagine Psalm-singing for Genevan worshipers. Chuck pointed me to a few resources I had overlooked (particularly an obscure PhD dissertation which was underappreciated for its contribution to the Calvin/Church music discussion).

Back then, Chuck wanted to cut through what felt like layers, webs, and jungles of church music that felt like it struggled to get to the heart of things and re-engage the simple, Reformational model of singing Psalms, believing that these “new songs” (because they were Psalms) had the power to re-focus, re-energize, reform, re-ignite, yes inSpire worship. You gain some of this perspective if you read Chuck’s booklet, New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening.

Semper React-amanda

Every generation of church music is reacting and attempting to correct. And now, many of us are reacting to CCM—its commercialization, its triumphalism, its absence of grief and suffering. But, what I’m noticing, the more I listen to the hearts and stories of the people who cherish what I am quick to vilify, the more I find the history more nuanced than I had dared believe. God only knows what’s on the other side of all this liturgy-love for guys like me…once we get old and liturgy is no longer in vogue, feels dead and needs a fresh overhaul. Hard to imagine, right? I’m sure it was hard for the early CCM songwriters, artists, and worship leaders to foresee a time when the music and songs they wrote and produced would be so criticized.

Certainly, CCM has broadened, evolved, morphed, and pressed well beyond the original vision of the early founders. And certainly there are many things to challenge and critique. I guess my hope with this little post is that, for all the complaining we do about the "state of evangelical worship" (When will the unhelpful critical posts cease?), we don't miss the hearts and, yes, the wisdom of what good we can find there. Many of the CCM founders are now in their retirement years, and they really do have a lot of long-term wisdom to share with the rest of us. The older you get, the more you're able to view chunks of history broadly and cyclically. The new, young "reactors" always need the seasoned, old "sages" to point out their blind spots. 

But this means that we, while committed to our convictions, need to keep our fingers out of our ears and at least keep one palm open before the rest of the world. There is always more to receive.  


How the Calvary Chapel Movement has Impacted Worship Worldwide

**UPDATE: Several have commented and asked about how to get Fromm's dissertation. It's not formally published, so I emailed him and asked. He said the best way is to request it to be loaned out from Fuller Seminary's library. (Sorry, it's a little tedious!)** I have just finished reading Chuck Fromm's fascinating dissertation with an impossible-to-understand title: Textual Communities and New Song in the Multimedia Age: The Routinization of Charisma in the Jesus Movement. Fromm is publisher and founder of Worship Leader magazine, Song Discovery, and National Worship Leader Conference. He's a key player and thinker in the modern worship "industry," but he is no industry hack. In addition to reading his work, I've been blessed to interact with him many times, and he is thoughtful, generous, wise, and analytical. 

Textual Communities is a fascinating exercise in interdisciplinary studies, particularly the intersection of sociology, theology, and ecclesiology. Fromm chronicles the birth and rise of Calvary Chapel churches out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s in Southern California and analyzes it all through sociological lenses.  I have many takeaways from this important study, but most perhaps significant for me and for worship leaders in our current age is Fromm's detailed recounting of the history of Calvary and Vineyard worship.

The Underappreciated Impact of Calvary

Before this study, I had not put the pieces together of just how significant the impact of Calvary Chapel worship "shifts" were (and are) on worship today. Reading the history made me realize that so many of the taken-for-granted values of contemporary worship emerged from the sensibilities pioneered and championed by Calvary in the 60s and 70s. Again, these sensibilities, which were so novel back then, are now things I hear as "worship givens" from the lips of worship leaders and worshipers alike today. Put another way, when I hear many worship leaders often talk about "what worship should be," or when I hear worshipers often talk about what "good worship is," it's shocking how many of those values I observe were birthed or newly emphasized in the Calvary Chapel / Vineyard construct.

Worship leaders and worshipers alike should make themselves aware of their own values and seek to ask questions of how they arrived at those conclusions. For instance, why is self-expression such an important part of the ethos of modern worship these days? Or, why do we modern worship leaders have an almost instinctive impulse to perpetually find new songs and discard old ones? Or, why do we see spontaneity as a sign of the Spirit's authentic work in our worship services? I think the answers to these questions and more can be found, at least in part, in investigating what happened in and through Calvary Chapel, particularly from the mid 60s through the 80s.

Values and Emphases Observed in the History of Calvary Worship

From my own reading, here are the values and emphases I picked up as Fromm told the history of Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. For the sake of blog-post brevity, I won't explain them, but just list them. Fromm did not list these things. They are my own gleanings from his historiography:

  • originality and perpetually "newness"
  • authentic, "real" worship expression
  • high performance standards for music and production
  • leaders and congregation are openly and mutually receptive
  • expressions and feelings of intimacy in worship
  • a liturgical "curve," moving from thanksgiving to intimacy (i.e. "praise," THEN "worship")
  • spontaneous singing
  • "real/authentic worship" equated with something immediately emotionally moving
  • blurred lines between a worship service and a rock concert
  • flowing, seamless music "sets"
  • "rhapsodic" singing

We must realize that many of the above ideas were quite new or not widely practiced in Christian worship. Or, perhaps more accurately as Fromm would argue (and I believe somewhat rightly so), they were in some instances forgotten and rediscovered.  (For instance, Fromm highlights that the intimacy and quasi-romanticism of some Calvary/Vineyard/Jesus Movement music was a rediscovered expression of early church worship, demonstrated in the exotic-to-our-ears Odes of Solomon).

The Worldwide Impact

I don't think it's too grandiose to say that the above values have had a worldwide impact. Why? Because the commercial Christianity of the American West has successfully exported these values in packaged, transferable, reproducible form--i.e. recordings, worship concert tours, overseas church planting. Think of Hillsong's impact in Latin America, South America, Asia, and Africa, for instance, or the fact that many non-Western Christians are likely to have sung a Chris Tomlin song.

The Point

Christianity is deep and wide. Sometimes, we worship leaders can have our heads in the sand about our values and assumptions. We can be oblivious to the way God has worked through His people across the centuries and well outside our traditions. Historical studies like these, if we're paying attention, can give us an opportunity to jump out of the pond and do some testing of the water we've been swimming in. And when we do, several things will likely happen. First, we'll probably discover that there are some toxins in the pond that we were previously unaware of. Second, we'll appreciate the good things about our pond as compared to others on the terrain. Third, we'll be able to jump back into our pond (our calling) with greater pastoral care for the blessings and liabilities of our ministry context, so that we can do our part in God's disciple-making process.


Recent Discussions on the State of Christian Music in the West

As of late, there have been some very important reflections on the state of Christian music (whatever you think of the phrase, I'm using it as shorthand).  Two weeks ago, I had a face-to-face discussion with a man who's been in the industry for quite some time, working for some pretty influential major labels.  For an industry-insider, he was surprisingly blunt about the industry, sharing a lot of critique centering around basically two realities (which many people have pointed out): (1) for much of the industry, the bottom line is the dollar; (2) the industry is unfortunately interested in celebrity-making and therefore have certain criteria for how they select artists.

Several industry insiders and outsiders have been talking in the last few months with some very important observations.  I'll highlight three.

Bobby Gilles - My Song in the Night
"Can We Trust the Contemporary Worship Industry"
Thorough and balanced reflections on the state of the industry, ultimately concluding that it is neither completely guilty nor totally innocent. 

Michael Gungor
"Zombies, Wine, and Christian Music"
A successful artist from within the industry (signed with Integrity) prophetically rails against the industry in a post laced with cynicism.    

Bruce Benedict - Cardiphonia
"Observations on the New Hymns Movement"
 ( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )
In preparation for a discussion at the Calvin Symposium, Benedict put together some thoughts about the emergence of the rediscovery of hymns and the retuning of them among emerging adult generations.  Among other things, his reflections emphasize how the movement emerged as a reaction to the mainstream industry.  Part 3 is the most intriguing in this respect, because he highlights, ultimately, that this reaction cannot, in and of itself, solve the problem, because the retuned hymns movement needs to be complemented with other aspects of church music.  


CCM Artist Challenges Modern Worship to Write Better Songs and Embrace Liturgy  

Fernando Ortega has always behaved as one cut from a different swatch of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) cloth.  His instrumentation has almost always been a bit more folky and “classical.”  His melodies have always been a bit more lyrical.  His albums have always shown an awareness and embracing of the Church’s hymn tradition. 

Click to read more ...


On Worship: Consumerism, God as the “Sky Fairy,” and Authenticity

I’ve got a new friend, colleague, and ally in the quest to raise the bar on evangelical worship.  His name is John Gooch.  He’s a new M.Div. student (worship emphasis) at Denver Seminary, and even as he leads worship at various churches, he’s been a part of our pastor’s group committed to weekly reflection, mentorship, and accountability in ministry.  John recently wrote a paper reflecting on Mark Driscoll’s, The Radical Reformission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).  This was part of an assignment for a pastoral ministry class, and he had some unique and insightful angles on worship stemming from the book.  Here’s the section of his paper, which he gave me permission to publish on my blog.  I find his thoughts valuable, penetrating, and prophetic.  Let us know your thoughts!


Driscoll’s treatment of the “seven demons of postmodernism” lends important insight into several aspects of a worship leader and pastor. The fifth demon, “the customer is always evil,” correctly identifies the reality that “we all long for the world to bend to our needs,” and that our culture particularly believes “that the market should provide whatever people think they need” (p. 170). It is apparent that we often apply the worship of consumerism in our common practice of “church-shopping” and in treating our worship of God as a profitable business. Driscoll’s statement that “we tend to cast God as a product, and as mainstream a product as possible” is highly convicting as a songwriter and worship musician. The Christian music industry is not immune from clever marketing strategies and the adoption of mainstream cultural musical trends, and I personally confess a temptation to want to become the “next big thing” in Christian music. However, I do not think it is sinful in of itself that there exists a Christian music “industry.” Christian music serves to edify and encourage believers, as well as preach the gospel to non-believers. But we must remember that worship ministry is an outpouring of the spiritual gifts God has given us. It is not a religious service or product that we sell. Thus, our goal is not to become the “next big thing” in Christian music, but rather, to share the gospel of Christ through the beauty of music to as many people as God deems appropriate. We must be careful to continually humble ourselves and remember that worship must always be directed towards God, not allowing innovative marketing strategies and popular musical trends to supplant the sovereignty of God in our ministries.

Driscoll’s first demon of postmodernism, “the Sky Fairy,” plays an extremely important role in the theological and lyrical foundations of my worship songwriting. Driscoll identifies that the Sky Fairy “is the neutered and limp-wristed god of pop culture that wants to bless everyone, does not care what you call him/her/it/they, never gets angry, and would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell” (p. 166). Indeed, “ours is an increasingly spiritual age, but God’s people should in no way perceive this as an indication that lost people who believe in the Sky Fairy are any closer to the true God that the atheists of a previous generation were” (p. 167). How appropriate this is in the context of modern worship music! Admittedly, much of popular worship music today caters to crowd-friendly lyrics and weak theology that sings praises to a hyper-spiritualized Sky Fairy instead of the awesome and glorious God who holds all authority and power over the universe. Thus, in our songwriting, we should guard ourselves against the wide road of easily-digestible, catchy lyrics and theology that does not sing the true Gospel and the powerful work of the cross. As worship music should preach the gospel, so should we approach our songwriting with a careful and thoughtful hermeneutic that strives to root itself in scripture and seeks to be made manifest through the power of the Holy Spirit. Writing catchy and singable music does not mean that responsible theology must be sacrificed in the process.

Finally, Driscoll’s second demon, “keeping it real…sinful,” has a much subtler application in worship ministry. Driscoll identifies this demon as the underpinning that “God’s people need to be more real and authentic” (p. 167). In the context of praise and worship, being more “real and authentic” in this area is usually taken to mean becoming more emotive and expressive in personal and corporate worship. This may include pastoral exhortations to push expressive boundaries such as encouraging the raising of hands, clapping, and dancing while worshipping. This is under the assumption that such emotive practices surely demonstrate “real and authentic” worship. However, “because we are sinners, simply encouraging people to be who they are in the name of authenticity is dangerous because it can easily be taken as a license to sin without repentance” (p. 167) In praise and worship, this sin usually manifests as pride; in believing that because I am raising my hands, my worship must more honoring to God than the man standing next to me silently bowing his head and not singing. This is simply a false belief that we must repent of. True praise and worship comes from the real work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and soul of believer, not an artificial emotiveness rooted in pride. Raising hands should be celebrated as much as quiet reflection, as long as both activities are an outpouring of the genuine work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the action of repentance should be regarded as much of an act of worship as the action of praise, and worship music would be well-served to remember the theme of repentance in lyrics instead of always just focusing on the theme of praise.