Leah Payne’s God Gave Rock & Roll to You tells an underheard story about Contemporary Christian Music

God Gave Rock and Roll to You

I grew up listening to Contemporary Christian Music, which since its rise in the 1960s has come to be known as CCM. Artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Carman, Petra, and more filled my ears, my home, and the family car for my entire childhood. Even as my stylistic tastes changed upon entering high school, I only listened to alternative rock and hip-hop created by specifically Christian groups like DC Talk, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Starflyer 59. Sure, I knew about the super-popular groups played on what Christians called “secular” radio and MTV, but I didn’t listen to them too much because I was afraid of going to Hell if I died before repenting. 

From 1999 to 2005, I took it a step further, working at a Christian bookstore in a suburban mall. I went from consumer to purveyor, from fan to shill. But most crucially, I went from being convinced that the Christian music industry was a “ministry” for people who wanted to serve God with their talents to recognizing it as a profitable business with significant political and cultural baggage. That eye-opening education, combined with reading theology and philosophy outside the comfy confines of evangelical Christianity, kickstarted my deconstruction. But even after completely leaving the religion of my youth behind, I still experience warm feelings of intense nostalgia for CCM.

That richly layered background meant I was the perfect audience for God Gave Rock & Roll to You, the impressive new book by Dr. Leah Payne. Published by Oxford University Press, the book truly fulfills its subtitle: “A History of Contemporary Christian Music,” thanks to an impeccable blend of academic research and first-person interviews with legacy stakeholders in CCM. It also happens to be accessible read, especially because Payne began the project as a survey distributed on social media that eventually garnered tens of thousands of participants. 

On its face, we’re given a straightforward text describing the history of CCM as the niche genre it ultimately is. Each major era, starting in 1897 and ending with 2023, gets its own chapter describing the key players, the standout artists, and the overall industry trends. Payne pays specific attention to how the intertwining machinations of the record label executives, radio station owners, and media moguls shapes the face of 20th century Christianity. You instantly gain a sense that the people involved are Christians, but they also recognize the money to be made. Moreover, they come to understand the power they could have directing how the average Christian lives out their faith both in and out of the pew.

However, the book gives us much more than back-office shenanigans between the movers, shakers, and contract signers. It’s replete with both origin stories and the long-term impact of CCM icons in terms of how much they sold, how the fans treated them, and how the artists felt about the industry. We hear tales of the immortal “Jesus Per Minute” ratio imposed upon the lyrics, the infamous “If You Like This Secular Band, You’ll Love This CCM Band” posters, and the tours sponsored by influential parachurch (as in, not formally affiliated with any specific denomination) organizations like World Vision and Compassion International. 

As with any genre, the fans adored their favorite acts and packed out venues to see them perform, but there was one big difference that several artists chafed against while others wholeheartedly embraced. When listening to the music, you didn’t want to be Michael W. Smith or Newsboys—you relied upon them to be the best possible example of what a good Christian should be. In CCM, the artist really was marketed as a role model, as a super-Christian. Payne goes to great lengths to make this point abundantly clear: CCM was selling the “right” way to be a Christian, and people readily consumed this fiction, especially suburban moms who wanted to keep their kids in church and away from the world.

The story reaches its denouement after the events of September 11, 2001. After decades of being a powerful and profitable genre of music that influenced millions of Christians around the world, CCM began to struggle. Much like the regular music industry, Christian labels withered in the face of online file-sharing and e-commerce. People didn’t have to go to Christian bookstores for their music, books, t-shirts, and tchotchkes, and they didn’t have listen to the artists promoted on Christian radio stations. 

Moreover, the tenor and tone of evangelical Christianity changed, and CCM changed with it. Instead of songs about Jesus for Christians with the hope of sounding cool enough to score a “crossover” his on “secular” radio, Christians came to prefer a style called “praise and worship.” It’s simpler music exclusively for corporate singing in church services and much more inward-facing in its content. The songs of 21st century CCM are either sung solely to God or specifically about God, which stands in contrast to earlier songs which espoused Christian values over classic pop and rock arrangements.

This was the part that most interested me, as I’ve had many conversations with friends over the past several years about this topic. Payne’s research points the reader to a curious combination of sociocultural influences: decreased denominational affiliation, fewer people identifying as evangelical Christian, and the increased preference for Charismatic and Pentecostal styles of worship among non-denominational Christians. Put another way, Christians prefer demonstrative praise and worship over pop songs because, in a world that feels less “Christian” to its more determined believers, they have embraced an “us vs. them” mentality more than ever before. And that means they want songs sung to and about God that highlight God’s power in the face of a “secular” world that has rejected God and Christianity.

Which is a heavy and discouraging way to end a book that, for the most part, shines an appreciative light on a genre of music that has brought many people joy for many years. Some fans might take umbrage at the way Payne connects Christian music in the 2020s to the rise of Christian nationalism, but the evidence rests in her favor, especially with how CCM as an industry has long backed GOP politicians and conservative political movements. 

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