CCM: an Opinion
By Matthew Bliss
The church has arrived at a strange point in the journey of Christian worship. It’s a time full of potential, exploration, and discovery. At the same time, we live in a period where the music we sing begins voluminous as the oceans, but is reduced to an increasingly familiar and gray monotony, and eventually beaten to death by overuse. It is also a time in which services exist that give consumers direct control of who they support rather than the consumer having to rely on the church for their musical edification. However, most troubling among all of the things I see in today’s worship scene is its capability for division. Like many Christian issues, worship is a topic which enables, or perhaps has become an excuse for, the unleashing of a certain nastiness. While perhaps less typical of millennials, there are strong opinions on worship in the church which many refuse to reconcile. The gap between one opinion and another is palpable. That statement is not to disparage either side, but rather to point out the urgency with which we must address these divides, specifically those between CCM and the rest of praise music.
Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is a genre of music which began in the early 1970’s, borne out of the backlash towards the sexual revolution. Originally called Jesus Rock, CCM has developed in some capacities and regressed in others. Jesus Rock was bold, pioneering, and sought to modulate the message of grace into a new style. CCM was later development of that “engagement” mindset, and CCM artists sought to soften the blow theologically heavy music slammed its listeners with. This brought Christian music to the familiar place it now occupies, with softened themes and easily-understood metaphors.
Critics of CCM blast the genre for its characteristically simplified messages, shallow theological content, and amateur composition. Unfortunately these accusations ring true for large pockets of the genre. Before continuing, we must define Contemporary Christian Music. “Christian” and “Music” are self-explanatory, but “Contemporary” throws many for a loop. It simply means that the genre keeps up with the culture. This means that all music produced for this time period- music which engages the culture in any fashion- is CCM. Gungor and Lecrae, Skillet and Hillsong, though their musical styles vary wildly, are all in the same contemporary genre. Criticise one CCM artist for being a CCM artist and you criticise them all.
It seems appropriate to also define the function of worship music. Praise music’s purpose is to glorify God, but there are other considerations. The tone of whatever music is being played has an enormous effect on its listener’s emotional state, and in an environment like church, using that tone to set the atmosphere for the sermon is one of mainstream CCM’s strongest aspects. However, sometimes the soft and fuzzy music of CCM falls short in lyrical depth or emotional movement. For these moments we can turn to other artists that deal with life and all of its curve-balls.
It is because of the textural power music possesses that mainstream CCM has significant value in the church. It also holds dangerous potential. In a 2015 podcast hosted by Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, David Gungor of the liturgical band The Brilliance was being interviewed on the state of worship music. Being a long-time worship leader, musician, and child of a musical family, Gungor recognized all of the above points. He became disenchanted with the CCM scene for a period when he realized how easy it was to fall into worshipping for the rush of excitement, rather than God. In the interview, Gungor explained the danger of CCM is the average Christian faces being caught up in the moment of the music, always expecting and yearning for another experience. Gungor’s message was clear; he meant those hits of dopamine are hazardous to one’s personal faith.
Gungor injected his personal philosophy into the story. While attending a concert, with violins, ushers, and a quiet audience, he noticed everyone leaning forward into their chairs. None were participating in the music, but everyone was spellbound, listening and tilting forward into the music. Gungor realized the worship music he wanted to create did not require his audience to shout and scream for the Lord, but reflected the beauty of the world and spoke to the emotions as much as it spoke to the mind- the kind someone could just listen and lean to. His is the kind of music that one can listen to, understand, and, most importantly, discern.
Discernment is a virtue that people paint in broad strokes. It boils down to picking music which honors God, but there are thousands of songs, even within the CCM genre. We live in a time where painting in broad strokes, saying one style of music is clearly better than another, is not just bad taste; it is lazy. It ignores the potential and purpose of that genre. As we move forward into a season of diverse worship music, the best way to honor the Lord will be to sift through the songs and find those with which you honor and praise the Lord with in the most genuine way.
Sometimes the best choice you can make is to come before the Lord when you are most raw and pour out your the most prickly thoughts. One of Gungor’s songs says, “I saw the writing on the wall. You were a man, and that was all. There was no God in heaven above- there was no perfect saving love.” When I was in my senior year of high school, that song hit me like a ton of bricks, as doubt has been one of my struggles as I’ve grown up. But the song continues, resolving with, “And then my world was torn apart. I felt a ground, I felt a heart. And all the universe was one, just like a father, spirit, son.”
You couldn’t sing that in church, you will never hear that in a worship service or on the radio, but it was one of my most cathartic moments, listening to that song and digesting the truth within it. It takes discernment to go through a song like that and understand everything in accordance with you and God. At the same time, CCM has provided a succinct segway from simple worship to a potent message.
Living life for God, not ourselves and our temporary tastes, takes the most discernment. Too often the criticism of mainstream CCM comes from personal taste. It is time we lay down arms and start evaluating how to fit everything into the puzzle of life, rather than setting aside whatever pieces do not fit the place we’re working on in the moment.