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.
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.