by Dale Reeves, Story Pastor
Recently I went to a movie theater for the first time since the onslaught of COVID-19. A documentary that I was very intrigued with was released on October 1, and I wanted to see it on the big screen, while I savored some buttery popcorn that tastes better at a theater. The film is simply called, “The Jesus Music.” Having spent a good number of my years in the located youth ministry and as a student of the various phases that Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has gone through on the radio, in the church, and in my own personal life, I was excited to see how this film would treat the vast anthology that was often known as CCM. But before it was called that, it was known simply as “Jesus Music.”
Focus on the Family’s “Plugged In” review stated, “From the days of the post-Woodstock Jesus Movement to post-9/11 worship music, many a Christian music maker has tried to ensure that the devil not get all the good music. . . . Hippies were disillusioned with the failed promises of the ‘flower power’ movement. Free sex and drug use wasn’t the cure-all they promised. But Jesus? That was something different.”
The Jesus Music got its start in America’s 1960s counterculture movement. Its humble beginnings happened at a church called Calvary Chapel, which is located in Costa Mesa, California. While many other churches weren’t exactly sure how to welcome the hippies into their traditional church setting, pastor Chuck Smith welcomed them with open arms. And he baptized hundreds of them in the Pacific Ocean. He quickly discovered that there were many among them who were very talented musically, and they were writing songs that expressed their newfound faith in Jesus. My wife and I actually attended that Calvary Chapel church one Sunday while on our honeymoon in 1985 because I wanted to hear the man preach who was credited with helping to launch the Jesus movement in southern California. The movie, co-directed by brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, showed interviews with several members of a group called Love Song, whose vinyl album was the first Christian album I owned.
Not Without Controversy
Artists such as Larry Norman, Keith Green, and the Resurrection Band helped to create a soundtrack for a new movement—one built on Jesus, and one that has continually evolved throughout five decades, into the multibillion-dollar industry that Contemporary Christian Music is today. But many in the church were not so quick to embrace this rock music as something that belonged in church. Enter America’s preacher, Billy Graham. At an event called “Explo 72,” an evangelistic conference sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, held at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, Billy Graham gave needed credibility to the new Christian music that God was raising up. He called this gathering of 80,000 people, comprised mostly of high school and college students, “A Christian Woodstock.”
By the 1980s, the music was rising in popularity but was still dealing with a lot of fallout in the church. Jimmy Swaggart, among other televangelists, told his congregation that Christian rock was “of the devil” and “a diabolical scheme of Satan.” Michael Sweet of the Christian metal band Stryper (who dressed in black and yellow spandex, and tossed out Bibles from the stage), says that his whole family had gotten saved while watching Swaggart preach on TV. When Swaggart came out with his diatribe against Christian rock music, Michael says he was crushed, and couldn’t understand this lack-of-grace response from the church.
As the Jesus Music movement continued to develop, some more controversy ensued based on the flaws and foibles of Christian artists. The documentary didn’t skirt these issues, but rather shared them as part of the imperfect Christian walk that we all are a part of. Many Christian music fans struggled with how to respond to artists who fell short of God’s perfect plan, whether it was Amy Grant’s divorce, stories of extramarital affairs in the lives of some singers, or Kirk Franklin, who has been transparent about his infidelity and struggles with pornography addiction. The documentary spent some time with Russ Taff, an important figure in Christian music in the 70s and 80s.When CCM Magazine wanted to do a cover story on Taff, the singer told them he was an alcoholic: If the magazine wanted to back out, Taff said, he’d understand. “If I were to take everybody out of the magazine who had some sin problem in their life,” said founder and CEO John Styll, “we’d publish blank paper.”
The documentary also did a great job of being honest about real-life struggles between bandmates that led to the breakup of groups such as DC Talk. Michael W. Smith, who played a very key role not only in the growth of CCM in our nation but also in the world, shared how his live worship album which was released on 9/11/01 was a huge God thing—ushering in a new wave of Jesus worship music. Worship leader, Chris Tomlin, remarked, “Let’s not forget music was God’s idea.”
A powerful moment for me in the movie was when Michael W. Smith read these words from the prophet Amos in his music studio:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).
In my opinion, every preacher, worship leader, Christian convention planner, and concert promoter I know who is trying to “build his brand” should heed this strong warning from one of God’s prophets—a shepherd whom God called to deliver a message of righteousness and justice.
If you love to listen to Christian music on the radio, on your Spotify playlist, or enjoy the modern worship songs we sing in our church’s weekend worship experiences, do yourself a favor, and go see this movie. Being aware of the history of the movement is something every Christ follower can benefit from. Even more so, seeing how God uses broken people in his service provides hope for all us who are flawed human beings.
In the words of hip-hop music producer, songwriter, and recording artist TobyMac, who lost his 21-year-old son Truett to a drug overdose:
“God uses people who are broken to record songs that reach out to the broken.”