Fewer musicians and songwriters are labelling and marketing themselves as ‘Christian’. But why? Is Christianity as uncool as ever? Or could this actually be a good thing?
I vividly remember my first Parachute Music Festival. It was 2005 and dozens of Christian bands and artists had descended upon the Mystery Creek Events Centre to showcase their God-glorifying tunes.
Parachute was an annual Christian music festival where 20,000-plus would converge outside of Hamilton for four days of music, speakers, seminars and sunburn. Many Christians today will tell you it was once the highlight of their calendar.
Fast-forward to March 2014 and Parachute Music CEO Mark de Jong announced that, after 23 years, the showpiece event of the New Zealand Christian community was coming to an end. Sadly, with dropping ticket sales the festival was no longer commercially viable—the 2014 event had lost close to a quarter of a million dollars.
A Cultural Shift
In an interview posted by Parachute Music, Mark said this was due not only to an increase in competition with other summer festivals but a dramatic shift in the Christian cultural landscape.
‘There was a time when mostly a Christian young person would listen to music made by Christians,’ Mark said. ‘Now our Christian young people listen to the same music that everyone else listens to. They listen to the same radio stations, they consume the same media.’
He said this had a huge impact on the festival because it meant a Christian-specific event had gradually become less appealing. On top of this, he spoke of a major shift amongst Christian musicians where many had steered towards bands with a more mainstream and secular focus.
While he believed this was a good thing, many of those artists didn’t want to play at an event specifically tagged ‘Christian’—ultimately this meant the organisers couldn’t get many of the bands they wanted.
‘We have found ourselves in a situation where we tend to be having the same bands year after year—particularly the same international bands year after year. It’s very hard to grow an event when you’re having similar artists every year.’
Today we have Festival One, a much smaller, pared-down Christian music festival.
Could This be a Good Thing?
Christian musician and cultural thinker Sam Burrows says ironically this change isn’t due to a stigma towards Christianity, but rather a shift in Western culture that’s becoming more open to spirituality—and, to some extent, religion.
‘This is interesting, because the height of “Christian music” as a genre and its corresponding subculture sort of emerged when this kind of coalescence [merger] wasn’t so much of an option.
‘But when people started turning to spirituality, the cultural lines started to become blurred and so it isn’t surprising that music did too.
‘Secular musicians began to discuss spirituality and God in an exploratory, rather than condescending manner, and Christian artists followed suit, far more willing to acknowledge doubt and the problems with tribal mentalities.’
Christian musician and Doctor of Theology Michael Frost says historically the Christian music subculture
was one way of responding to the secularisation of Western society.
‘For Christians who felt uncomfortable with the way New Zealand was moving away from what they perceived to be Christian values, Christian music felt like a safe place.
‘This was a space where you could feel cool without having to go along with some of the wider changes in culture. But I think the next generation of Christians haven’t felt this same level of anxiety—probably because this new world is all they’ve known. They’re generally not so worried about some of the things that were a big deal for Christians 10 or 20 years ago.’
Christian writer Joel Heng Hartse has an interesting take on his shift from being a youth group kid who listened exclusively to Christian music. In Relevant magazine he discusses an experience he had as a teenager at a Christian rock concert—during the show the front man made it clear to the audience that the only reason they played music was to tell them how Jesus was their personal Lord and Saviour.
To Joel, this kind of attitude was brutally inauthentic. He felt lied to and cheated. After years of being a fan and buying their records they were now telling him the music didn’t matter.
‘How dare you make me fall in love with rock and roll and then tell me it’s a farce, tell me that the only reason it’s marginally OK that I’m listening to it is that behind it all is the “right thing to believe”.’
Subsequently he shunned a lot of Christian music. However, this eventually enabled him to see a different side of God. ‘This was a push I needed, a felix culpa [blessing] that would eventually open up a world in which God could be experienced in a thousand places that were not a church and a thousand songs that were not praise choruses. Once, I didn’t think such a thing was possible.’
Outside the Box
I feel many artists have fled the Christian label because they feel it puts them in a box—where there is an expectation about how they should approach their art. But music is art and art is expression. Why does our creativity as Christians need to be clearly confined to a single theme?
Worship music still has an important role in the church, in helping people honour and praise God through music. But Christian culture has discovered God can be worshipped in many forms and often through songs that question—much in the tradition of the Psalms. Even non-Christian artists—like Sam Smith with his song ‘Pray’—can help us understand how our wider world is relating to God. And that’s just worship through music … there are so many other ways we connect with God.
I think this shift is refreshing and exciting for the church. Ultimately it inspires our musicians to give their art a broader appeal, something which will no doubt break down the tribalism that often separates us from non-Christians. After all, I’m confident I’ve worshipped God in a range of genres—even in heavy metal!